Based in Quebec, the photographer Renaud Philippe (Hans Lucas studio) has worked independently in countries around the world: India, Haiti, Kenya and Tunisia. His aim is to unveil the hidden world of those affected by precarious circumstances.
Blink’s Kyla Woods caught up with Philippe to speak with him about covering the earthquake in Nepal, the difficulties of working in the country as well as advice on how to create an in-depth photo essay in a disaster-stricken area. This is an edited transcript of their conversation:
LC: Were you near Nepal when you heard about the earthquake?
RP: At the time it happened, I was in a remote place in Quebec and on May 2, I was initially meant to leave for Japan to do a personal project. I had no reception, and on April 25, I received an SMS from my brother asking if I had seen what happened in Nepal. After two days, I decided to change my original plans and head into the heart of the disaster.
LC: What supplies did you take with you?
RP: Mainly batteries. Also: two camera bodies and two lens, my 35 mm and 50 mm.
But the real problem there was the almost complete lack of Internet reception. When the second earthquake hit, I was only able to send two photographs out to the world—and those took about six hours to send. The only way to send multiple, high-res files was to walk back to Gorkha and that was a two-day trip in itself.
LC: Was it difficult to get to Barpak (where this project was made)?
RP: Yes. Barpak is about a six-hour drive from Patan, which is the closest city to the airport. On the way, we stopped in Gorkha. We talked to numerous people: journalists, NGO employees, volunteers and they all told us that we could only get to Barpak by helicopter. The only problem was that no one could point us in the direction of a pilot—even the NGOs weren’t able to access Barpak!
We thought there must be a way. After four days of searching, we finally found a route. We arrived in Barpak by night but even then, there is another five-hour walk to reach the entrance of the city.
What greeted us when we arrived was shocking: behind the “Welcome to Barpak” sign was just a pile of rocks. There was nothing left.
LC: How long did you stay in Barpak?
RP: A total of two weeks. During that time, we did go back to Gorkha and ventured to Laprak. This village is about a five-hour walk from where we were. Most of it was destroyed by a landslide.
In most parts of the village, there was nothing left. The people who lived there felt that it was too unstable, too unsafe to reside there anymore. As a result, most of the residents camped at a higher altitude, on the mountain.
Last week, we received news that the living situation has not changed; many people are still living in tents.
LC: Before arriving in Nepal, did you have any concerns?
RP: There’s always a lot of pressure, especially when you go to a place on a whim. You need to do a great job, get close to people and try to connect with people on an intimate level. A lot to ask, basically.
The only aspect of life that surprised me was that in comparison to other disasters, let’s say the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, there was no violence that followed in the aftermath.
LC: You went to Nepal as a freelancer—were you concerned about having these photographs published?
RP: Yes, of course. My main concern as a photographer is that I want to know that my work is useful, that it’s relevant. When you notice that well-known publications, like the New York Times and Le Monde are sending photographers to ground zero, you, as a freelancer, have to be aware of your role. You need to tell a different story: one that is timeless and that surpasses the surface of the disaster and unearths how people are coping with the aftermath.
Questions you need to ask yourself as a photographer, or as a storyteller, are: “What is the life after like? What is the trauma?” Or “How is life one year later?” and “What are the long-term effects of the earthquake?”
LC: What are some of the limitations of working as a freelancer in a place like this?
RP: Perseverance. As a freelancer, access is incredibly crucial to the development of your story. When you need a helicopter to get you from one place to another, you really need to know the right people.
The first thing we did when we arrived in Nepal is talk to people and figure out where we could go, where we couldn’t go and what that meant for us as storytellers. You need to understand the situation and take decisions based on what’s possible.
LC: Have you kept in contact with the people you met there?
RP: Yes, I kept in touch with most of the people from that area. I’m even in touch with the helicopter pilot!
But overall, I strongly felt that travelling by road helped initiate in-depth storytelling. It allowed me to talk to people, live with them, understand their story and build long-lasting connections.
Something that often gets disregarded, especially when working at a fast pace, are the connections you can make. There are always good people out there who you can learn from—as long as you take the time to get to know them.
In hindsight, I am glad that we stayed in Barpak rather than travel throughout the country. We were able to pursue documentary storytelling at its best. When you jump from one place to another, you only shoot what you see first. But, for example in Barpak, I would walk into a destroyed house and my first impulse would be to capture that—evidence of the event. But then, after a few days, it becomes “normal.” And so you go deeper.
On the other hand, what doesn’t change is how the people cope with that event. Wherever you are, you can focus on the lives of the people living there.
LC: Were there any cultural traditions that surprised you, or influenced how you worked?
RP: The Nepalese are very superstitious. After the earthquake, people were scared to walk at nighttime because they believed that the ghosts of those who died during the quake would be wandering the streets. This was something very important to know as a journalist. We want to respect their customs because it is an important part of the overall story.
Another thing to be aware of is that the Nepalese don’t express their personal feelings in the same way as a Westerner might. You can’t ask, “How do you feel?” and expect a deep response. This is where imagery comes into play. Particularly after the second earthquake, you could see the lines of worry and trauma etched into the faces of the villagers.
Now, since I had been to the country multiple times, I felt confident that I had begun to understand the culture. I really love the country and its people, which meant that I worked with my heart. So, the only advice I have for someone who is working in a new place: know the culture and the way of living.
—Renaud Philippe interviewed by Kyla Woods